Goya in the age of capital punishment
The appearance of Goya, at Bengal gallery of Fine Arts, through a selection of his etchings in the month of October, last year, fostered renewed reflection on the ability of this timeless vanguard to direct his passion towards the tumults of human predicament plagued by war and strife – all that with a visual language loaded with irony. Regarded both as the 'last of the old masters and the first of the moderns', his works correspond, on many levels, to the reality we inhabit today, where violence has no particular face, to quote Bob Dylan.
The collection of 84 works on display at the exhibition, featuring works ranging from his first etchings, through which he mastered this unique technique while interpreting Velazquez, to pieces from his four great original series: Los Caprichos, Los Desastres de la Guerra, La Tauromaquia, and Los Disparates, capture human travails across different social and political registers. The two week long exhibition ruffled the imagination of the gallery goers, and through the reconstructive agents of haunting sensations, they kept assailing our ossified modern consciousness.
Reflecting on Goya's Los Caprichos, Charles Baudelaire once touched on the essential un-naturalness that the artist evoked and which our poet par excellence framed as the modern spirit attentive to '…a love of the ungraspable, a feeling for violent contrasts, for the blank horrors of nature, and for human countenances weirdly brutalized by circumstances…'. The series with its 'singular kind of playfulness', to borrow the poet's expression once again, can now be recognized as a master artist's reaction to the unsavoury goings-on of his time, the particularly appalling events which once overshadowed Goya's native Spain, the invasion of the Napoleonic army. That the horror of modern day violation of nation states by an imperial power continues to cast an ominous shadow over our current existence, tainting our consciousness with apprehensions and uneasiness, makes this famous Spaniard's impassioned takes on war and atrocities and the attending unfolding social drama, all the more relevant.
If the murkiness, which accompanies the irony, enveloping each and every image makes it look more like an affectation, it does so as we have become habituated to a sanguine view of the world, versed as we are in the Rabindrik (arising from Rabindranath) humanist tradition in this clime we inhabit. That violence lies at the core of the modern civilization is often overlooked as we search for sanctuaries of hope myopically averting the modern-day fallout zones such as Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, Sudan – the sites of conflicts, irreducible testimony to the vulnerability of people smarting under all kinds of local and international aggressions.
It is in such a context that one realizes how Goya seems the most efficacious agent in comparison with masters such as Picasso and Dali who wanted to address wars and aggressions that rocked the Twentieth century. That art in the new millennium also comes to terms with this master's works projecting the valency of the irrational, is a fact that one needs to wake up to.
If Goya had sparked a collective awakening through the depiction of horror and irony, two British artists, famous siblings known as Chapman brothers, reinvested his images with heightened absurdity, enforcing Goya to meet the quirkiness of the Postmodern techné.
The result of their appropriationistic stance, dubbed by many as aesthetic violence, was showcased in White Cube in 2005, under the title: Like a Dog Returns to Its Vomit. Adding insult to injury, they set about reconstructing (or defacing, according to some) the famous corpus 'Caprichos' (1799) one by one, which resulted, perhaps, in an attempt to violently re-orientate our liberal taste buds. The entire series – consisting of 82 etchings in all – help us re-examine 'victimhood' and how fragile and comical and even grotesque reality has turned into as we continue to be devastated by futile, yet protracted wars around the globe.
Unlike Goya's depiction, which looks reality in the eye and then courses the received data through caustic visual treatment, most of today's spectacles of human atrocity appear before us as shock tactics that are blunted by overuse and rendered pointless in the context of both unchoreographed and choreographed terrors of our time, as they are destined to failure. In the politically charged world, death of the 'othered' is the death unmentioned, forgotten in the wake of fresh new deaths; and this wreaks havoc with how we perceive 'victimhood'. It is in such devaluing of human being that the brothers – Jake and Dinos Chapman, set out to reinvent in the 'trauma image' as 'absurd image' by overlapping the horror of unrecorded death with the haunting reality of non-acknowledgement of personhood of all othered victims.
The Chapman brothers proffered basis to their act of reconfiguring Goya's famous oeuvre:
'He's the artist who represents that kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the aneién regime,' says Jake, 'so it's kind of nice to kick its underbelly. Because he has a predilection for violence under the aegis of a moral framework. There's so much pleasure in his work. To produce the law, one has to transgress it. Not to be too glib in the current conditions, but there's something quite interesting in the fact that the war of the Peninsula saw Napoleonic forces bringing rationality and enlightenment to a region that was presumed Catholic and marked by superstition and irrationality. And here's Goya, who's very cut free from the Church, who embodies this autonomous enlightened being, embodied as a gelatinous dead mass without redemption - then you hear George Bush and Tony Blair talking about democracy as though it has some kind of natural harmony with nature, as though it's not an ideology.'1
- Jonathan Jones, Look What We Did, The Guardian, 31 March 2003.